The Green Reef, crochet sculptures by the Institute For Figuring and Companions, view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 2012. Courtesy of the IFF Archive. Photo by Margaret Wertheim.
Christine Wertheim’s recently released book mUtter-bAbel is gorgeously hyperbolic, a primordial pataphysics of text and drawings that explores relationships between babies, mothers, language, and “ugly archaic feelings and their troubling social effects.” Wertheim’s parabolas, ellipses, helixes, and spheres of lines and letters recall Apollinaire’s Calligrammesand Marinetti’s “words in freedom.” While Marinetti’s typographies explode, Wertheim’s bloom, defying the regime of the rectilinear with curves, circles, holes; and subverting the cacophony of war with the babble of babe. I think of Zaum and Khlebnikov’s universal language—Babel restored, but not as tower.
Wertheim’s feminist concretism is replete with psycho-historical linguistic associations:mouth, mother, mutter, mute. Black-and-white text is suffused with deep red—language as haptic, enfleshed. Words and letters, often backwards, repeated, and superimposed, erupt in spirals, whorls, and vaginal shapes—sometimes resembling tissue samples under a microscope: linguistic patterns embedded in the culture, in the cells.
When performing the text, Wertheim pants, howls, and screeches. In performance and on the page she evokes the tactile world of the infant, glossolalic sensual non-sense, and the primacy of mouth through which we both imbibe sustenance and project speech.
mUtter bAbel’s cyclonic intensity appears to radiate from a transformation that seems central to Wertheim: the ruptured unification with the mother that occurs when a baby learns to differentiate. In this crucial psycho-linguistic turn, mother becomes other. From whole to hole; the mouth as site of satisfaction transmutes into the site of lack and rapacious consumption. Mouth mirrors sphincter; from mouth to out. Smeared on the page, rejected as waste, shame is externalized; from colon to colonialism.
For Wertheim, this turn manifests socio-politically; from hunger to anger. The book abruptly shifts its focus—to the US-Mexican drug trade as oral fixation, and the US’s oblique complicity with genocide in its support of the Ugandan military. A particular atrocity is emblematic for Wertheim: Pamela Aber, who along with other children was captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army, was forced to punish a girl who tried to escape by biting her to death.
What Wertheim seems to ultimately reveal is the process by which we project our oral insatiability onto the excised other and how deeply our linguistic patterns are embedded in that projection. The mouth’s relationship to the body is also its relationship to the body politic.
And to bodies of water. The coral reefs are dying. In 2003, Christine Wertheim and her twin sister Margaret, author of several books about the cultural history of physics, founded the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles, “to promote public understanding of the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science.” They’ve suffused the masculine domain of science and the linearity of Euclidean geometry with the feminine craft of crochet and the hyperbolic geometry of excess.
As you move away from a point on a hyperbolic plane, space expands exponentially. Ruffling, rippling, whirling, ever-increasing, folds within folds. The boundary is infinitely far from the center. Ballet tutus, leaves of kale, and the undulating hermaphroditic flatworms, frilly sea-slugs, and corals of the oceans’ reefs all have hyperbolic forms. For years mathematicians couldn’t devise a way to represent hyperbolic space—until 1997, when Cornell University mathematician Dr. Daina Taimina used crochet to create a model of the hyperbolic plane. Inspired by Dr. Taimina, the Wertheims instigated a worldwide collective project of thousands of people crocheting hyperbolic forms to create an enormous, baroque “woolen reef.” TheNew York Times called the resulting Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef an “environmental version of the AIDS quilt.” The Wertheims are also creating a Toxic Reef of crocheted plastic—from bags to bottles to videotapes—to call attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic mass of debris in the Pacific Ocean.